Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Eurotrip 2022 - Days 15-16 (8/6-7/2022) - Back to Oslo then home

Saturday was a long travel day, with a three-part journey to get to Oslo around 10:30p. The first leg was a ferry (or express boat) from Balestrand to Flåm. This was actually a continuation of the ferry that we had taken to get to Balestrand from Bergen two days prior. The boat was scheduled to depart from Balestrand at 11:50a, but it didn't arrive until about 20 minutes after that. The ride to Flåm was once again quite scenic (and again Fran spent the trip topside while I mostly hung out on the lower deck), and we somehow made up some time to arrive right around the scheduled 1:40p time.

Ferry from Balestrand to Flam

We had 3 hours to kill in Flåm before our hour-long ride on the Flåmsbana (Flåm Railway), a slow and scenic train ride on old tracks that were built about 100 years ago. Fran and I (to a lesser extent, but mostly in concurrence) weren't all that impressed with Flåm, and were glad that our itinerary spent significantly more time in Balestrand instead. We didn't want to tow our luggage for 3 hours, so we paid the approximately $10 each to stow them at the luggage depot for a couple of hours. We then found a spot to eat the hotel sandwiches that Fran had packed, and a couple of pastries we bought from seemingly the only bakery around. Next we went for a walkabout, including ascending a nearby hill to get a better view of the area.


We picked up our luggage and made our way to the train platform with plenty of time to spare, being among the first to board. Once again, I wasn't terribly impressed with the Flåmsbana. There was some benefit to going slowly such that we could absorb the surrounding sights more, but (with one exception) it wasn't much more scenic than the regular train ride in that part of the country. The exception to that was the stop at Kjosfossen waterfall, where passengers were able to get out for a few minutes to take pictures; but that experience was tarnished by the abject tourist pandering where they played some Norwegian folk music and had some dancers representing the forest spirit - I'm still puzzled why that is a thing.

Kjosfossen waterfall stop on the Flåmsbana

We were a few minutes late arriving at Myrdal, which cut into our already short 7 minutes transfer time to the Vy train to Oslo. Nevertheless we made the transfer and settled in for the almost 5 hour ride to Oslo. For "dinner" we grabbed a couple of barely tolerable (frozen) pizzas from the cafe car on the train. After arriving in Oslo we made the 15-ish minute walk to the Hotel Bristol, the same hotel that we had spent our first night there.


On Sunday we had a 7:50p flight to NYC (JFK), so we had a day to kill in Oslo. We were fortunate that the hotel allowed us to do a late checkout at 5p, so we were able to keep all our stuff in our room until then. After breakfast and a relatively lazy morning we headed out to check out a couple of the museums on the Bygdøy peninsula. We walked down to the harbor and then took the museum ferry across. We first went to the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History). Fortuitously, our entry time just about coincided with an English guided tour, which I would definitely recommend. The tour focuses on the medieval buildings and architecture, and we also had some time beforehand to check out one of the main exhibit halls. Because of that tour I would rate that museum over our original destination, the apparently better reviewed Fram Museum. The Fram Museum turned out to be pretty solid as well; though there's a ton of information on the walls there, the best part is walking on and through the preserved boat. In between the museums we spent a bit of time hanging out at the shoreline park in front of the Fram Museum.

Guided tour at the Norsk Folkemuseum

After the museums we took the ferry back to the city center, made a quick stop for ice cream, then walked to the vegan cafe that we had enjoyed our first day in town (Nordvegan) for a very late lunch. We finished eating after 4p, giving us time to finish packing up at the hotel and head for the airport; we took the Flytoget express train back there. And that was about it for the trip. I guess the last thing to mention is that Norse Atlantic (the low-cost airline we took home) was more of a budget airline than I expected for a 7.5 hour cross-Atlantic flight. You have to pay for every little thing there - even water and blankets; we were prepared and didn't pay for anything extra besides the checked bags that we had already prepaid for. Other than that the flight was fine; flying on a 787 Dreamliner can't really get all that bad.


Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/44Vf8gccA5UfLjTo7


Eurotrip 2022 - Days 13-14 (8/4-5/2022) - Balestrand

We had an early start with an 8am ferry from Bergen to Balestrand. Once again we didn't board until a few minutes before departure, and so had to search a bit before finding a couple of adjacent seats in the middle of the lower level. I stayed in those seats for most of the ride, while Fran staked out a (standing) covered spot upstairs and outside; I did go out a couple of times to take pictures and say hello to her. The ride had some nice views, but it (obviously) wasn't intended to be scenic in the same way as the cruise the day before. The second half of the ride went through Sognefjord, which is the widest and deepest fjord in Norway (and apparently the largest non-glacial fjord in the world, if I understood the boat crew announcement correctly?). We arrived at Balestrand around noon, about 10 minutes later than the planned time.

The impressive Kviknes Hotel is less than a 5 minute walk from the boat dock. Unfortunately our room was not yet ready, so we stowed our luggage in the luggage room and then tried to occupy ourselves for a couple of hours. We found out that the Norwegian Travel Museum adjoined the hotel (i.e., occupied the same building), so we bought a couple of tickets and walked through that for a bit; it wasn't very impressive, but it helped kill some time. Our room was ready when we we went back to the lobby to check on our room around 2p, so we were able to move our stuff up there.

After a bit of pondering - mostly due to the fact that it had been raining steadily since we arrived - decided to head out for a walk to see the hotel grounds and then a couple of the local attractions. We walked to St. Olaf's Church, an Anglican stave church which we later found out (from our gregarious dinner host, David) was the inspiration for the cathedral (and possibly the snowman's name?) in the Disney movie Frozen. From there we walked to the Ciderhuset (Cider House), where we bought 6 bottles of locally produced ciders (3 alcoholic for Fran, 3 non-alcoholic for me) and some local honey. Then it was back to the hotel to dry off. Dinner was included in our hotel reservation, and we made a 7:30p reservation when we checked in. The meal was buffet style, and once again included a nice variety of options for appetizers, sides, mains (though more so for meat-eaters than vegetarians, particularly for the warm dishes), and desserts.

Kviknes Hotel - the old section


The weather was looking better for the next day. We had considered doing a morning rib-boat tour of Sognefjord and then a hike up Raudmelen in the afternoon, but eventually decided on just the hike. We had the (once again high quality) breakfast buffet at the hotel and then were out the door a little after 9:30a. We walked the 20-ish minutes to the start of the nature trails and then began the ascent. The first two-thirds or so is designated moderate, while the final section to the summit (right about where the tree line stops) is labeled challenging. I would say this is mostly true, though there are some portions of the first section that are just about as steep as the top part. None of the trail is particularly technically challenging, but it does take some work to get up to the 972 meter high peak. And being one who sweats profusely, it was a good thing that Fran planned ahead and brought shirts for me to change into at the top (we joked that she is my Sherpa for life); the temperature hovered in the high 40s / low 50s (Fahrenheit), so my drenched clothes did not make for a particularly comfortable time. The rain mostly stayed away during the hike, though there were some brief periods of sprinkles. The passing clouds didn't make for the best of views at the top, but the sunshine during the descent was quite pleasant. We also had a couple of rainbow sightings - one in each direction. We made it up and down in around 4 hours, including the break at the top.

Looking toward the peak of Raudmelen after going past the tree line

Fran and I atop Raudmelen

Second (more prominent) rainbow sighting on the hike down Raudmelen; I believe that is looking toward Tjuatoten

I was ready for a good sit by the time my shaky legs (which have never been great at handling descents) made it back to hotel. After some snacks and a shower I lounged in the room for a few hours while Fran went back out for a little walk before joining me back in the room. We later repeated our 7:30p dinner in the dining room.


Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/44Vf8gccA5UfLjTo7

Friday, August 5, 2022

Eurotrip 2022 - Days 11-12 (8/2-3/2022) - Bergen

Our self-guided tour continued with a 10:25a train from Oslo to Bergen. The tour company texted Fran to let us know that we would need to switch to a bus for the last leg of the trip, from Voss to Bergen. We later found out that this was due to maintenance being performed on the tracks. We had breakfast at the hotel (an impressive and varied spread of hot and cold foods spanning a couple of different rooms) and then walked to the central station. The train portion of the journey provided some nice countryside and mountain/hill views. At Voss everybody got off the train and scrambled downstairs and outside for the waiting buses. The rain did not help with the confusion. But in any case we got ourselves and our luggage on one of the buses. The bus ride was longer than scheduled because of both a car accident and roadwork; we arrived at the Bergen bus station a bit after 6p, an hour later than the original train would have put us there.

Once at the bus station, we needed to figure out how to get to Thon Hotel Orion - it was raining, and the bus station was farther away than the train station. Google Maps told us to take the #12 bus, but it took us a while to figure out where to catch it to go in the correct direction (Fran saved us from taking it in the opposite direction, avoiding a repeat of the Zürich fiasco). We eventually found the correct platform (U, despite the sign being knocked over), and with the help of a couple of other travelers downloaded the Skyss app to buy a couple of single ride tickets (which was probably a bit unnecessary, but whatevs). On a slightly related topic, I should say that I have been pleased with my Google Fi cell service throughout the duration of the trip; it's been great just being able to use my phone everywhere without worrying about lack of service or extra charges.

Across from Bryggen at the Port of Bergen

Anyway, we made it to the hotel and checked in. Then we headed back out for a bit of a walkabout and to find dinner. We settled on an India place called Maharaja, which was decent. I also got some ice cream on the circuitous route we took back to the hotel.


Our main planned activity the next day was a fjord cruise to Mostraumen (through Rødne Fjord Cruise) that Fran had added on to our tour. We ate breakfast at the hotel (this hotel also had a nice spread; and as with the last one Fran made a couple of bread and cheese sandwiches to take with us for lunch) and then walked to the pier to catch the cruise. We boarded about 7 minutes before the planned 10am departure time, but even by then most of the seats (and definitely all by the windows) were already taken; we initially took a couple of seats in the middle section. At this time it had been raining lightly but steadily so almost everyone was indoors in the lower deck. But Fran was not content with being stuck inside on a fjord cruise so she scoped out the outside area of the top deck and snagged one of the ~6 covered seats for me. This seat was next to a couple from Poland who (we found out in conversation) had planned their trip around seeing Björk in concert in Bergen that night; and so of course I inquired where the concert was happening, and it turned out to be at an outdoor venue literally next door to the hotel where we were staying.

Bergen-Mostraumen fjord cruise

In any case, the fjord cruise was pretty spectacular, despite the gloomy weather. The rain cleared up soon after we cast off, though it did return for a couple of sections of the cruise. The low clouds prevented us from seeing the tops of the mountains in many places, and (according to one of the ship's crew members) caused the color of the scenery to be more muted. That same crew member also told us that this had been the coldest Norwegian summer in 50 years (though some later research suggested only in 30 years), and a particularly wet one. I think the temperature hovered in the high 50s and maybe low 60s (Fahrenheit), which of course felt a bit colder outside on the boat. Nevertheless, it was a treat to float by the stunning mountains, cliffs, and remote villages. The trip out ended with a surprise stop beneath one of the cliff-side waterfalls; after that point we turned around and headed back to Bergen. We arrived around 1:15p, squarely within the planned 3-3.5 hour duration.

Bergen-Mostraumen fjord cruise

Back in Bergen we needed to back a pit stop at a couple of outdoor clothing shops so that Fran could buy new waterproof shoes - her sneakers were letting water in and her feet were soaked and cold (my toes were wet, but not to the same degree as her). After that we made our way to Fløyen, one of Bergen's city mountains, and hiked up that. It took about 40 minutes to get up there; the steep incline was enough for me to work up a good sweat, though I wouldn't call it too strenuous. After admiring the view for a bit we walked back down, then to the hotel.

I bought tickets to the Björk concert while we had a bit of a rest. Then after a shower we walked back out to grab dinner at a Thai restaurant, before heading to the Bergenhus Festning for the concert. The performance began at 9 and featured renditions of her songs with a live orchestra (setlist here). It briefly threatened to rain in the middle of the show, but thankfully held off. We both enjoyed the show, though wished we would have been able to see the Polish couple in the crowd to wave hello and maybe thank them for letting us know about it.


Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/44Vf8gccA5UfLjTo7

Monday, August 1, 2022

Eurotrip 2022 - Day 10 (8/1/2022) - To Oslo

Tjorven (and the kids) drove us from her mom's house in Hamburg to the airport so that we could catch our 10:20 Eurowings flight to Oslo. They came into the terminal with us and we said our goodbyes while in the line to go through security. The short flight was mostly uneventful, except for a bit of moderate turbulence as we began our descent. After arriving, we bought a couple of return Flytoget express train tickets to the city.

Fran had arranged (through Fjord Travel Norway) a self-guided tour of Norway for us for the next 6 days. This began with a night in Oslo, and then would take us to the west coast for a couple of days for some sightseeing in the fjords. Our accommodation for the night was Hotel Bristol, which is well-located close to the city center, a block from where the bustling Karl Johans Gate turns into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. We found the hotel without much trouble and were checked in and settled into the room before 2pm.

Vigeland Sculpture Park

We soon headed out on foot toward the Vigeland Sculpture Park. The hotel clerk had suggested a couple of nice streets to walk through on the way there, so we walked through Palace Park (Slottsparken), then turned onto Oscars Gate to walk by a few of the nice embassy buildings there. Soon after we turned toward Frogner Park (Frognerparken, which contains Vigelandparken), it began to rain. We waited out the storm under a tree (on Gyldenløves Gate) and then continued on to the sculpture park. The rain held off for the rest of the day, so we were able to enjoy the sculptures in the dry (unlike the first time I was there).

Vigeland Sculpture Park

We took a different path down another major street, Bogstadveien, on the way back to the city center. This allowed us to check out some shops and grab a quick snack - a pastry that somewhat resembled a fancy cinnamon roll. We made a quick pit stop at the hotel so that Fran could change her sandals to sneakers and then continued on to one of my favorite landmarks - the Oslo Opera House. We walked up to the top to enjoy the view and take in the surroundings (which included an impromptu choir performance, and a careless kid wiping out while dangerously descending the building steps on a scooter).

Oslo Opera House

Next on the agenda was dinner. We walked back to a vegan cafe/restaurant that Fran had spotted down the block from our hotel. Fran got a rice-based bowl, and I got a noodle-based bowl that was recommended as their best seller. The flavorful options and our lack of substantial food that day combined to hit the spot. And in a surprise celebrity spotting, Woody Harrelson and his wife came into the cafe as we were finishing up our meal. After dinner we walked back to a gelato store that we had seen on Karl Johans Gate, before heading back to the hotel.


Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/44Vf8gccA5UfLjTo7

Eurotrip 2022 - Days 3-9 (7/25-31/2022) - Zürich, Quelkhorn, Kiel, Hamburg

Most of the motivation for us going to Zürich on this trip was so that I could spend a day at the Google office there with a few of my colleagues. We checked out of the hotel and made it to the office around 9:30a. I took both of our luggage up while Fran had a day spend in the city; she ended up biking around the lake and doing a bit of shopping. My time at the office was good overall - it was nice to meet a few colleagues in person, check out the office, and sample the office food for breakfast and lunch (I think the NYC office easily has better food). Fran came back to the office a bit after 3:30p, and she was able to come in and change before we headed over to the train station. We took a train to the airport, where we caught our Swiss Air flight to Hamburg.

In the airport at Hamburg we were greeted by Fran's aunt, Brigitte, and her husband, Jens - we were staying at their house for the next few days. They took us out to dinner at an Italian restaurant in the outskirts of Hamburg (which was pretty good, though I didn't get the name), and then we made the rest of the drive back to their house in Quelkhorn.

Fran had been looking forward to introducing me to her extended family in the Ottersberg area, and it was great to meet all the people that I had heard so much about. We stayed in Brigitte and Jens' beautiful home, which had modern decor that nicely contrasted the surrounding farmland. Christoph, Fran's uncle, and his wife Beate live right next door in another lovely home. Both houses had recent extensions that nicely showcased a German style that I have quickly become a fan of. And both couples were ultra kind and welcoming of me into their homes and the family.

The next few days were not too exciting in terms of adventure, as I was still working. They joked that Google had established a new office in Quelkhorn. Despite putting in some working hours, I still had a good time during my stay there. I met Christoph and Beate the next morning (Tuesday, 7/26) after we arrived. Christoph, Fran, and I had breakfast together in his house, and then he introduced us to a great game called Sjoelbak, which is like a Dutch version of shuffleboard. It was even more enjoyable since I somehow managed to beat both Fran and him. For dinner that night he and Fran made us the Indonesian dish Gado Gado.

Fran, Brigitte, Jens, and Louie in front of a sunflower field

On Wednesday Jens brought his son Ole's dog, Louie, home from work. After I was done with work, we (Jens, Brigitte, Fran, Me) took a long walk over to Ole and Laura's apartment to return Louie, and then to a restaurant called BergWerk in Quelkhorn for dinner. Christoph met up with us there. Jens' sister and her husband also happened to be there that night, so we all ate together at a table. We all had pizza, which turned out to be better than I expected given the thinness of the crust; I had the four-cheese (vier sorten käse) variety.

Thursday's dinner was Christoph's special käse (cheese) fondue - my first time ever having it. We also dipped banana slices and grapes in addition to the standard bread. I was mostly able to keep pace with Christoph's voracious appetite, but ran out of steam right at the end. After the meal Beate (who doesn't eat the fondue) came over for an hour or so.

Fran and Christoph play Sjoelbak

Friday (7/29) was my first non-working weekday of the trip, and also the day we were to make our way into Hamburg and then to Kiel. After saying goodbye to Brigitte and Jens (who were off to work and then a weekend on their boat), we had breakfast with Christoph and then played one final match of Sjoelbak - I held on to my title of weltmeister with a record-breaking (for us) last round. After that Christoph took us to the Ottersberg train station, where we caught the late morning train to Hamburg.

In Hamburg we had lunch with another of Fran's aunt's, Gabriela, her partner Ülle, and their daughter Leoni. The highlight of the meal was probably the nectarine and burrata salad to start, though the risotto was also quite good. After the meal, Gabriela took Fran and me for a walk along the Außenalster (a lake along the Alster river). Ülle, who had picked us up from the train station, then dropped us off at a U-Bahn station so we could take it out of the city center to meet up with Fran's friend Tjorven.

Tjorven and Benedict's backyard

Tjorven picked us up at the Barmbek station, and then drove us to their home in Kiel. The time spent with them didn't get off to the best of starts when their daughter Tabea wailed loudly for most of the hour-plus ride up to Kiel because of the two new strangers in the car; but she was more than comfortable with us by the time we parted ways. We spent a couple of nights with the family (Tjorven, husband Benedict, son Klaas, daughter Tabea) in their house. Highlights during the stay included hanging out and having all our meals out in their spacious backyard, many of said meals including fresh vegetables from their garden, a walk along some neighborhood trails, and a visit to the forest and beach at Steilküste Stohl.

Fran helps Klaas take a picture of Tjorven and Tabea

We had a morning flight on Monday (8/1), so Tjorven and Fran decided that the best plan was for Tjorven to drive us (and the kids) to her parents' house in Hamburg where we would all spend the night; this also gave Tjorven a chance to return her mother's car, which she had used to pick us up. Her parents fed us a delicious dinner that evening, and we capped off the night watching the women's Euro 2022 football final.


Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/44Vf8gccA5UfLjTo7